Clarifying technology in schools: 3 ways

CC BY NC SA Nick Kenrick

The House of Lords have assembled a select committee on digital skills, and recently Nesta’s Jessica Bland and I were invited to go to give evidence. In the process of preparing my contribution I came to consider the clarity of explanation around the use of technology in schools, and came across a distinction I think it useful in continuing to move forward the discussion and ultimately the practice in this area.

Since I first became involved in the schools sector the use of technology has been referred to as ‘ICT’. At first this was a discrete subject that young people were taught in dedicated lessons, often in dedicated suites or labs of computers.

As technology came to be more ubiquitous it quickly came to be conceptualised as something that could be useful in other subjects, so you had the English lessons where the class trooped down to the ICT suite to work on their composition using digital editing tools in word processors.

At the same time dedicated teaching tools such as the ‘interactive whiteboard’ were being developed, and teachers were being encouraged to make use of digital technology in their lessons. The standards by which student teachers were judged included elements on use of ‘ICT’, and the standard lesson planning forms provided by Universities and some schools came to include boxes to complete on ‘use of ICT’.

Use of technology as a teaching tool and the skills young people develop in using technology to create a piece of work are quite different things. The skills needed to effectively research and present information are very different to those needed to actually write a computer program. Yet, all of these are often referred to as ‘ICT’. As the use of technology in education continues to develop, we need some clearer language to facilitate clear thinking about the direction it takes.

Setting aside the use of technology in schools for administration functions, I would like to suggest three different broad areas in which we can conceptualise the use of technology for teaching and learning:

  1. Computing: Technology as a subject
  2. The Subjects: Technology within existing disciplines 
  3. Technology Enhanced Learning: Technology as a tool for teaching & learning

Computing: Technology as a subject

Much has been written about the importance of young people learning about technology in itself. There is a feeling that the complexity of modern technology, masked by the ease of use of its basic functions, could lead to a generation becoming consumers of technology with little understanding of how to manipulate it and create. We have a new curriculum subject in England of ‘Computing’ which covers the various aspects of this, from using technology to research and present information, through programming and computer science, to understanding issues of online safety and digital citizenship.

The Subjects: Technology within existing disciplines

The development of digital technology has had a significant impact on many subject disciplines. This often begins in a way that augments what is already accepted, but becomes increasingly pervasive until it could be argued it fundamentally alters the discipline. For example, the use of computers to collate, analyse and visually present data in Science was at first a more efficient (although in the early days not always!) way of achieving what people had for some time done manually. These days to be a modern scientist in most fields involves a sophisticated understanding of how large datasets can be manipulated and analysed using computation. There is still a need for young people to learn and understand the traditional aspects of subjects, but disciplines are changing as a result of developments in technology and school subjects need to develop to take account of that. Conrad Wolfram provocatively takes this a set further in terms of Maths, arguing that we should move on from ‘hand calculating’.

Technology Enhanced Learning: Technology as a tool for teaching & learning

Historically this has sometimes been conceptually muddled with the first area by describing it as ‘ICT’. There are uses of technology that can be beneficial for learning that do not involve learning about technology itself, and are not necessarily relevant to the subject disciplines themselves. To give a simple example, sophisticated visual presentations such as interactive models of the human body can represent subject content in a way that aids understanding. This is not specifically linked to the practice of the subject, and one does not need to understand how it works to benefit from it. There are many areas of promise in which technology is a tool for effective learning, rather than relating to the subject being learned or the technology itself.

There are clearly sub sets of categories for the use of technology within these three. For instance the ‘IT, Computer Science & Digital Literacy’ categories that were debated early in the development of the Computing curriculum, or the categories from our own ‘Decoding Learning’ report for ways technology could be used as a tool for learning.

Clear thinking requires clear language, and I would like to suggest that as our use of technology in schools develops we need to continue to clarify the way we categorise and discuss technology and move on from imprecise umbrella terms such as ‘ICT’. Clear and precise discussion can lead to clear and precise action. Such action will result in digital technology being used for the most benefit for young people.

Are these areas sufficient? Am I missing something? Clarity comes from testing ideas and debate so please do offer thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.


Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick.. via Compfight cc






13 responses to “Clarifying technology in schools: 3 ways”

  1. Paul Avatar

    Hi Oliver,

    Thank you for sharing and trying to provide clarity around the use of technology within education. One issue is the term Technology Enhanced Learning. From my perspective it seems that HE are pushing this some what. The first two terms Computing and The Subjects are fully understood across both the public AND the private sector. A few things:

    Technology Enhanced Learning is a term used mainly by academia. There is still this tendency to think once the students finish school that’s it in terms of learning. terms should not confuse the learner and need to work across both public and private sector.

    It doesn’t directly refer to e-learning at all.

    Lacks clarity. Learning Enabled through Technology maybe? I know how people like TLA’s. But I’d still not be happy with that term as it doesn’t fully describe what e-learning is.

    I appreciate this is difficult, and I’m pleased it’s being taken seriously. I would like to see reflected in these discussions the broader interests represented rather than just sectional groups. After all learning is supposed to be life long.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Hi Paul, thanks for the comment and I very much take on board the points you make. Although I am not sure TEL has to be limited to the formal education sector, I recognise that if that is the general perception then it limits the utility of the term. May I ask, how would you characterise the difference between TEL and e-learning?

      1. Paul Avatar

        Hi Oliver,

        Thanks for replying.

        Referring to the terminology, I’m not even happy with e-learning as that is still vague.

        I thought about this quite a bit on the train home and the term has to fully describe the activity.

        So if we said it is all Learning that would be an excellent place to start.

        Learning Enabled Through Technology is fully descriptive.


        Well Learning should be the focus, how it’s achieved is secondary, as long learning has occurred!

        The use of “Enabled” is specific to the way in which the enabling happens.

        Anyone should be able to read this term and understand the concept in a concrete way.

        Moving onto another section of this article, I’m going to be a bit critical of this statement:

        “There are uses of technology that can be beneficial for learning that do not involve learning about technology itself, and are not necessarily relevant to the subject disciplines themselves.”

        This statement does not go far enough. Did you consider how the content is going to be accessed?

        From my own experience of working in FE and attending the many Moodle Roundtables run by JISC. The platform is the single biggest obstacle to accessing meaningful content. If a user cannot navigate the platform then the content is not going to be accessed.

        Content must be accessible to be useful, logically the platform content is stored on must be designed to proper User Accessibility Standards as described by Jakob Nielson.

        Currently it’s a non standard mish mash in UK Education, which is sharply divided by the people who know what they are doing, and others that are to be polite, not up to standard, either through no fault of their own, or not bothered.

        If this government the whole context of Learning Enabled Through Technology seriously the entire on-line journey needs to be considered.

        1. oliverquinlan Avatar

          Thanks Paul, that is really helpful. I think the focus on the learning process is key rather than the technology, although I do think this exists in TEL, the emphasis is on the learning. However, what you suggest I would concede is probably clearer and more descriptive. It also doesn’t have the baggage of being an established term from one sector (HE in the case of TEL) transplanted to another.

          I can only agree with the second statement and your expansion on the phrase I used. It is really important to consider, and I think separating this area could lead to a stronger focus on issues such as usability. Remove the notion that young people should be learning how to use technology when they are engaging with this sort of learning (because they do that specifically elsewhere) and it becomes a lot clearer that it should be well designed and easy to use.

          Thanks for helping develop my thinking on this, it has been really helpful

  2. Crispin Weston Avatar

    Hi Oliver,

    I strongly agree with you on the need to distinguish between the teaching of technology and the use of technology – and that these two different objectives have been conflated by the term “ICT”. This is a drum that I have been banging for a couple of years (see, and is an argument which the Royal Society also made in its report “Shut down or restart?” in January 2012.

    As already commented, “TEL” is more widely used in HE than in schools. It is not a term that I particularly like for reasons that I explain in “The problem with Technology Enhanced Learning” at

    I prefer the term “ed-tech”, mainly because it avoids the fallacy involved in talking about “technology” as if it were a sort of large vat of homogenized peanut butter, but recognising that we need different sorts of tech. It is also worth noting that it is “ed-tech” that is, de facto, becoming the preferred term, and that it is also much more widely used in the US that TEL.


    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Hi Crispin,

      Thanks, this is really helpful. It is becoming clear that TEL is perhaps not the best term to use to articulate what I am thinking and what we are all discussing in this area for many reasons. I also need to go back more thoroughly through your blog and catch up on all this thinking! I am slightly wary of ed-tech because it seems to me more descriptive of products than process. It is very useful for specifically designed educational technology, which is something we need to consider much more as you have written. However, it may not include the use of technology as a learning tool when the technology itself has not been designed for learning but it being used by teachers for that process.

      I need to think some more on this, thanks for prompting me to do so.


  3. Taryn Hauritz Avatar
    Taryn Hauritz

    Thanks for sharing this interesting topic. We grappled with what to call “it” (not IT!) when talking about the change from “ICT” to how technology was used across the curriculum and we went with TEL. I’ve actually always thought it wasn’t the best choice, but didn’t know any better alternatives. My job title used to be Director of Learning Technologies, but I wanted to scrap the word technologies altogether after awhile. After all, its all about the learning. Does TEL include pen and paper? What is classified as technology? Are we talking about digital technology?

    This was a blogpost I did about the changing roles and titles in our schools –

    I’m definitely interested in exploring this theme further. Thanks all for your thoughts!


    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Taryn. I think Crispin has convinced me that using TEL as a term brings with it a lot of baggage (both positive and problematic) related to its use in higher education. I think it is still a useful concept as described in the blog but I wonder where a whole new title (including a new acronym) might be more useful.

  4. Taryn Hauritz Avatar
    Taryn Hauritz

    What about TEL – Technology Enabled Learning?

  5. Taryn Hauritz Avatar
    Taryn Hauritz

    TEL – Technology Empowered Learning?

  6. Alison Hardy Avatar

    Its great to see this debate opened up about defining technology for, and within, teaching and learning. However I’m surprised this has been written with no mention of the other school subject where ‘technology’ is in its name: design and technology! i know the subject has suffered from an identity crises at times since its inception in 1989 but still a surprising omission from your post.
    Interestingly the school subject ‘Technology’ in many European countries and the USA is more akin to design and technology than your definition, which assumes that ‘technology’ is relates only to, or activities with, computers or other similar artefacts; a rather limiting view but a common one. Marc de Vries has written about the definition and philosophy of technology, discussing the impact of this limiting view on our (i.e. societies) relationship with technology and approach to it.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Hi Alison, thanks for your comment. Perhaps I should have been more precise in my definition and limited this to digital technology? Or perhaps that may be too limiting- you have made me thing. I was envisaging Design Technology within the second area of subjects specific uses of technology, although of course there are many applications of the third area of using technology for learning in this subject as well.

      Design Technology is perhaps one of the most obviously affected subject disciplines by the development of new technologies, but to my mind it still fits within use of technology as a part of a subject discipline (that of design). My own experience in school and my experience of teaching the primary DT curriculum suggests to me the core discipline of this subject is design, a subject discipline in itself such as Science, which is then developed and affected by technology as it develops. I’m not sure I would place DT as a completely different section, although I agree it would have been a useful illustrative case of a subject discipline which technology is central to.

      1. Alison Hardy Avatar

        Hi Oliver,
        Wow! A quick response, I sometimes spend too long mulling over my replies to blog posts so I am impressed by your speed!

        I agree, maybe digital technology maybe more appropriate but could be quite limiting in the longer term.

        In terms of design and technology as a subject and where technology fits within this I’ve reread your section about science and think whilst this has some similarities to design and technology there is one significant difference: technology is also part of design and technology’s content. Yes technology is used to design and manufacture, e.g. Computer aided design, CNC equipment etc. but it is also part of what pupils learn about and what they design. For example students are involved in designing products which use arduino, and also designing circuits and conceptually designing new digital technologies, including new apps. Unlike science which uses technology to understand scientific matters, design and technology designs technology.

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